From strategy to sandwiches: small charity CEOs do it all

In August 2017, I started my role as chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition (SCC). When I applied for the job I (perhaps naively) saw it as a sideways step. Being a small charity itself, the SCC employs less people in total than the size of the teams I have managed in the past and the annual budgets are smaller than my monthly target from previous employers.

Balancing multiple priorities

Managing a small charity means I do not have a large senior management team to help me manage different functions. I am blessed with two very capable heads of department but anything outside their remit falls to me. This means I remain close to the frontline detail of HR, finance, IT, fundraising, data protection and anything else that comes our way.

From strategy to sandwiches

Yesterday afternoon was a great example of this; I was involved in discussions about our vision for the next three years, the impact of digital technology on small charities and the lunch options we should provide for an event next week. I am constantly asking my brain to jump from one topic to another. Often the only common thread is the charity.

This way of thinking, hopping from department to department so frequently, is new for me but a common challenge for chief executives. Janet Thorne, CEO of Reach Volunteering, shared her experience with me: “It’s not just the topic switches – it is also the lens switch. From high level strategy to tiny details, the point of view switch, from internal issues to external relationships, and the audience switch; different languages, assumptions, etc.. Some days my brain literally overheats!

What the clever people say

Researchers describe this process of “task switching” as one of the “executive functions” of our brain. In 1927, Dr Arthur Thomas Jersild conducted an experiment in which he compared people doing one task at a time with others doing two tasks alternately[i]. Unsurprisingly, he found that performance declines as a result of switching. David Crenshaw, who has since written a book on the topic[ii], states that this behaviour leads to tasks taking longer, mistakes increasing and stress levels rising.

This echoes what I hear from my peers. David Hoghton-Carter, a freelance strategy and communication consultant told me, “Switching from interesting, evocative and fulfilling work, to frustrating chores can be a very debilitating pivot to have to make frequently.”

Sadly, the academics in this area have not yet found a solution. Quite the contrary; they have established that monkeys can be trained to overcome the “switch cost”[iii] but the majority of humans cannot[iv].

Just focus

Hanna Pumfrey, Founder and Director of Acala, gave me the following advice,

When I start a task, I finish it. I don’t let myself be distracted by the million and one things that pop up along the way; the email notifications that come in, the WhatsApp messages that ping up. It’s really hard, but it’s worth it. You get through things in record time and the quality is much better as you don’t break your train of thought.”

In an ideal world, I would have loved to have locked myself away in a room when I was drawing up our budget for the year ahead. Yet this seems like an impossible scenario as a small charity CEO; I have already been needed twice whilst trying to write this blog. When a major donor calls, a complaint gets escalated, or a news story kicks off, ultimately I’m going to be needed to make a final decision.

Others have told me they integrate other practices into their ways of working. Caron Bradshaw, CEO of the Charity Finance Group recommends meditation. She told me, “I find five minutes to meditate if I’m finding the switch difficult; helps clear the circuits!

It seems that there is no “one size fits all” solution to this challenge and I am yet to identify anyone who thinks that have completely nailed it. The good news is that if you have found this challenging too you are certainly not alone….and clever people have proved that it’s normal, natural and only monkeys have found the answer.

Mandy Johnson is the chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition – a free membership organisation that makes life easier for small charities. She chairs the Institute of Fundraising South East and London Committee and sits on the board of Mind in Mid Herts. 

[i] Jersild A.T. (1927). Mental set and shift. Archives of Psychology (Whole No. 89, pp.5–82)
[iii] Stoet, G., & Snyder, L. H. (2003a). Executive control and taskswitching in monkeys. Neuropsychologia, 41, 1357-1364.
[iv] Stoet, G., and Snyder, L. H. (2007). Extensive practice does not eliminate human switch costs. Cogn. Affect. Behav. Neurosci. 7, 192–197. doi: 10.3758/CABN.7.3.192


4 thoughts on “From strategy to sandwiches: small charity CEOs do it all

  1. Having been there twice I agree with all the comments in the article including the very real possibility of melt down if no support is offered. As I’m just about to start at a new charity as the only employee I’m going to try and structure my working week with different blocks at the same time each week for strategy, operational, governance, detail etc. to see if that eases the issue at all. Notwithstanding there will always be the immediately urgent item that cuts across the diary.

  2. When a charity grows big it creates lots of unnecessary activities/ culture those affect negatively the organisational effectiveness. Small charity CEOs are forced ( as they don’t have resourcss) to focus on details as well as strategic items that makes them more effective. The main challenge is to maintain a balanced approach on day to day chore vs long term focus. In my observation, it is also very satisfying for CEOs to have well rounded information of their charity that makes them more authentic when sharing experience with others.

  3. Thanks for this Mandy – it made for a resonant read! It can be a strange role – one minute juggling policy with central government and the next recycling paper at the local tip! I’ve been with my small charity 13 years having never previously stayed anywhere more than 3. I keep going mainly because of the buzz of working across multiple fronts and developing skills and knowledge beyond those you might pick up in a more ‘standard’ CEO role. It can be tiring though and it’s good to have that validated and to remind small charity CEOs that their own welfare is critical – possibly more so than in larger charities where others could step in.

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